The view from my couch

Pass Go and Collect a Lead Lap Position
by Cheryl Lauer
September 23, 2003

I attended the Busch and Winston Cup races this past weekend in Dover, Delaware. Like other fans, I'd heard the announcement that NASCAR had banned racing back to yellow flag beginning with this race. Although, I don't entirely agree with this move, I can accept that it was made for the sake of the drivers' safety and can live with that intent. After all, "freezing" the field has been the practice at Saturday night short tracks throughout history and, although every day, NASCAR moves a little farther away from it's shorttrack roots, it was nice to see them embrace a practice from their past. What I was not aware of until I tuned into the TNT feed on my scanner before the Busch race was the little twist that NASCAR made on this practice. This twist amounts to "you may pass go and collect a lead lap position," in a sort of NASCAR version of the board game Monopoly.

What I heard on my scanner feed Saturday morning astounded me! Mike Helton was explaining how NASCAR planned to deal with lapped cars under their new rule. Even Allen Bestwick in the TNT broadcast booth seemed surprised by what Helton was saying and asked him to repeat himself for clarification. After a caution comes out and the field is frozen, whichever driver is the first car one lap down would now be allowed by NASCAR to automatically get back on the lead lap. Hence, the "pass go and collect a lead lap position" or what I immediately dubbed "collecting a welfare check" courtesy of the sanctioning body.

Long-time race fans are well aware of the practice that many drivers had started doing in the last 5-6 years, mostly the result of multi-car teams or teams under the same manufacturer umbrella. This is the practice where the leader would slow down dramatically right before taking the caution so his teammates or extended teammates in the Ford or Chevy family could get a lap back. It didn't seem to matter if the driver who was allowed to get a lap back had a strong car and a couple of times actually came back and won the race, many drivers were responding to team orders or manufacturer orders, or just giving a lap back to a friend of theirs.

I was never a fan of this practice and felt that it was nothing more than social welfare for those who were not fast enough to pass the leader and earn their laps back. Many years ago, NASCAR instituted what they called, the "Gentleman's Agreement", that there would be no racing back to the yellow flag. Competitors were relied upon to use good judgment and act like "gentlemen" in a spirit of fair play. Then comes a race earlier this season where Matt Kenseth was slowing down to let one of his many Roush or Ford teammates back on the lead lap. Second place, Jeff Gordon, was not happy with the prospect that several of the cars Kenseth was attempting to give their laps back were strong cars. He felt that they would be strong contenders for the win later in the race, so Gordon sped up and passed Kenseth so those cars couldn't get their laps back. After they took the yellow flag, Gordon fell back behind Kenseth, so he could rightfully reassume the lead. I guess this is where things really started going bad. Much discussion about the practice of giving laps back ensued after this along with questions about whether the Gentlemen's Agreement had outlived it's usefulness. Everyone had an opinion from the fans to the broadcasters in the TV booth. There were opinions on both sides of the issue. But loud and clear amongst all the discussion, it seemed to me that most people felt drivers should not be given their laps back, but should earn them if they had a fast enough car. Speculation began that maybe NASCAR ought to revert to the old shorttrack practice of freezing the field.

Things went along pretty well until the situation that arose at New Hampshire Speedway two weeks ago. Dale Jarrett had wrecked hard and his disabled car was sitting on the frontstretch near the start/finish line. The leader at the time was Bill Elliott and he slowed down dramatically entering turn 3 of the track. NBC's pit reporters later reported that Elliott had agreed to let Bobby Labonte get a lap back. No team tactics or even manufacturer loyalties involved here (Elliott drives a Dodge and Labonte a Chevy). Bill just wanted to be a nice guy, I guess. Unfortunately, he put into play a scenario that could have resulted in dire results. Not only did Labonte floor it to beat the leader back to the start/finish line, but Kurt Busch and several other lapped cars siezed on the opportunity to get their laps back. The second and third place cars of Ryan Newman and Michael Waltrip decided they didn't want so many people taking advantage of Elliott's generosity. Just like Jeff Gordon had done earlier in the season, Newman and Waltrip sped up and raced Elliott out of turn four, attempting to block a slew of lapped cars from getting their laps back. As they came onto the frontstretch and Jarrett's disabled car, everyone slowed down. Casey Mears had to make a last-minute maneuver to keep from hitting Jarrett. Controversy ensued after this frightening moment. Drivers and fans alike were again discussing the situation. NASCAR felt it had to act to put a stop to a situation that was clearly out of hand. Okay, as I said earlier, I don't necessarily think racing back to the yellow flag is always a bad thing. I saw some spirited battles in the late 80s and early 90s where Rusty Wallace or Dale Earnhardt came back from multiple laps down to win the race. Either they raced the leader back to the yellow flag or they were fast enough to pass the leader during green flag racing and gain their laps back. Either way, neither was a recipient of any welfare from the race leader. These are the kind of miraculous comebacks that made me love NASCAR racing back then.

Now let's jump forward to 2003 and the kinder, gentler "mainstream" sport we see developing before our very eyes. NASCAR, in it's infinite wisdom came up with the idea that since the drivers proved they could no longer "play nice" and let people back on the lead lap, that they would dole out the charity of letting one car back on the lead lap after each caution fell. Where this idea came from, I'm not sure. I've read this week that other racing series have this type of practice. I'll readily confess I have little or no knowledge about the practices in open-wheel racing, but I'm pretty certain no stock car series have this type of rule. In Monday's USA Today, writer Chris Jenkins, made the following statement about this practice: "But in a showbiz-conscious NASCAR twist, officials decided that they still wanted drivers to be able to "unlap" themselves when a caution flag is issued." I'd like to believe that NASCAR did not institute this silly practice in an effort to provide a better "show" for the fans in the grandstands or those millions watching on TV. I'd really like to believe that. Because from where I sat on Saturday and Sunday in the grandstands at Dover, it appeared to be a ludicrous move on the part of the sanctioning body. After watching the first recipient of this new rule get a lap back during the Busch race, I said it really was like waiting in line to get a welfare check. Certainly not the competitive racing that NASCAR has been known for since I started following the sport.

Then on Sunday, came the ultimate in farces which started with Ryan Newman cutting a tire down early in the race and losing 1 7/8's laps (according to NBC announcer Allen Bestwick). Yes, Ryan had a fast car in the early part of the race and it was "sad" that he fell off the lead lap early in the race. But things like this happen all the time. Every week things happen that contribute to the drama of a race, which many times may result in the fastest car not winning the race. Cut tires happen, wrecks happen, cars blow engines, break 25 cent parts, run out of gas, pit crews miss a lugnut, etc. These are part of the excitement about NASCAR racing! These unexpected things are what made me a fan of the sport and have kept me around even with the lack of competition that we see increase with every season. But now the NASCAR Monopoly Game has taken another turn in the wrong direction. One, that in the case of the Sunday race at Dover, resulted in Ryan Newman waiting his turn in line at the NASCAR Social Services window. A wait that eventually paid off when he cycled up to the front of line and got his "pass go and collect a lead lap position" late in the race. The irony of the situation is that Newman was particularly vocal in his dislike for this rule prior to the race. That is until he was in need of NASCAR's welfare check to get back on the lead lap and eventually win the race. After the race, he and his crew chief, Matt Borland, had the good grace to admit that while they still didn't approve of the practice, they were going to make the most of the opportunity given them. No one can fault them that. I applaud their ability to use the rule to their advantage and get to Victory Lane on Sunday. What I can't applaud is the fact that NASCAR would come up with such a silly rule in the first place. What were they thinking? When Newman was given his lap back, his team decided to make multiple pit stops during that caution to top off their fuel. When I saw this happening, I couldn't believe it! Everybody else on the lead lap couldn't do this for fear of losing a position. Newman's team had nothing to lose and in reality got a double advantage from the new rule. First getting their lap back and then to pack so much fuel in their car that they could stay out on the next caution when everyone else pitted. On Sunday, not only did the 12 team pass go, but they collected $160,460.00 in purse money as a nice little bonus. I know there's been inflation, but this is a heck of a lot more than the usual $200 in Monopoly!

There are a few last points I want to touch on before I go back to my couch. First, I didn't listen exclusively to the TNT/NBC broadcasts on the scanner this week, so I have no idea what the initial comments were by Allen Bestwick and the rest of the broadcast crew. I understand that like the competitors they chose to deal with the hand NASCAR dealt them and put a positive spin on the new rule. On Inside Winston Cup last night, Bestwick said that he was not sure he liked the rule when he first heard about it. He went on to explain that it did give NBC something else to follow with their cameras (meaning the battle to be the first car a lap down). I'll admit that this rule has the potential for actual racing between cars who are all one lap down, to get to the front of that group. I didn't see a lot of that this weekend at Dover (and believe me I was watching for this very thing); however, there is some potential there. So I guess you could view this as "the alternative race" or the race among the cars one lap down. But what still bothers me is the question: does the driver who is fastest among admittedly the slower cars deserve to get back on the lead lap with the clearly faster cars? If he really deserves to be there because he's faster, why can't he pass the leader during green flag racing? Yes, Ryan Newman was fast at the beginning and the end of the race, but does a car that has a mechanical problem, bad pit stop, etc. still deserve to win the race? To me the answer is no, if he wasn't fast enough to get back by the leader on the race track.

I think Ray Dunlap of the of the Speed broadcast team for the Craftsman Truck Series race, said it best: "Sometimes you have a bad day. If you do, so be it. That's just the breaks of racing." Both he, Phil Parsons, and Dorsey Schroeder were very outspoken that they did not like this rule which applies to all of NASCAR's top divisions. Schroeder went as far as to say it was "opening up a big can of worms." I couldn't agree more. Sunday was a perfect example. My last points are: Do we want the sanctioning body taking more of the "racing" out of racing? We already have common templates, restrictor plates, and numerous other things that have taken a lot of the racing out of the sport. Do we want cars that experience a problem to be given a "free pass" to come back and win the race? Is this all part of making a better show for the new mainstream fans who don't really understand the nuances of racing in the first place? When other drivers were giving drivers their laps back, I didn't like the practice. I like it even less when it's the sanctioning body doing it. But this is just the latest twist to NASCAR Monopoly. Stay tuned.

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